There’s nothing hesitant about Josh Ulrich’s photographic work.
The Lewiston native and Artwalk 2017’s featured artist captures all-in, go-big, grand-scale landscapes on the mountain tops and valleys of the great American west.
All-in seems to be a lifetime theme. Before graduating from Lewiston High School in 2006, Ulrich could be found on the soccer field, at math competitions or in his grandparents’ Lewiston store, Bob’s Pet and Pond. He went on to get his master’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Idaho and currently works for the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division. After writing software for them in southern California for a number of years, Ulrich was offered the opportunity to work from home and eventually settled in Boise.
Along the way, Ulrich’s wilderness experiences led him to another all-in pursuit: adventure photography. For the past three years, Ulrich has been chasing pines and peaks, capturing wild and beautiful moments on camera. We caught up with Ulrich via email to find out more about his life and work:
Camera of choice: Sony a7R II
Photo locations: California, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Utah; Alberta, Canada
Photographic background and training:
I am self-taught. Although, with the amount of material available online, it is hard to say self-taught. You can find instructional videos and guides for just about any photography skills you want. I’ve spent my fair share of time reading as much as I can about techniques, styles, editing and the entire adventure photography process.
Focus and inspiration:
The mountains were my initial focus. I wanted a way to convey my adventures to my friends, to show them all of the awe-inspiring views that I stumbled across, to lure more people outside to experience the feelings that I had felt.
The moment it all began:
I know the exact moment that I wanted to start taking photos. It was August 2014; I was standing along the edge of an alpine lake on a solo trip to summit Mount Langley in the Sierra Nevada. The sun was setting behind the western ridgelines, painting the meadows in vibrant shades of gold. I quickly rummaged through my bag for my phone, hoping to catch the moment, to make it last a little longer. As I stood up, the wind quietly dissipated, revealing the lake’s glassy reflection of the jagged peaks bathed in soft, red alpenglow. I was hooked.
I began with wide angle shots because I was seeking the big, the grandeur, the epic, and those feelings of insignificance when comparing the insignificance of a human to the immense, timeless scale of the mountains. Nothing puts everyday troubles and anxieties into perspective like comparing yourself to the wilderness.
An average work day:
Now that I work from home or the road, my work day varies quite a bit. Typically I’ll write software for a few hours before my daily morning teleconference with the software team. By the time the call comes to an end I will be ready to switch gears to a much-needed distraction. This usually leads me to exercise or train for an upcoming trip via rock climbing, yoga or trail running with my dog; but if it is just one of those gloomy, drizzly days, I’ll start planning my upcoming adventure.
Lessons in the wilderness:
Climbing Mt. Adams in Washington definitely taught me a few lessons. It wasn’t particularly challenging and didn’t require any advanced techniques, but I did make a lot of rookie mistakes. Mt. Adams was the second volcano I climbed solo and was my first real experience with travelling on a glacier. After a few hours of terribly cold slumber and powered entirely by caffeine and determination, I summited without issue; but getting to the summit is only half the battle. I still had to get down. Harsh winds at the peak followed me on my descent, blowing my sunglasses off multiple times before they were finally retired to my bag. Foolishly, I continued on, unprotected and unable to differentiate the feeling of wind burn from sun burn. I returned absolutely exhausted but nonetheless successful. The real struggle didn’t start until the next morning when I woke up with snow blindness, barely able to open my eyes and unable to see properly for a week. That is a lesson I will never forget: Always have the right gear, whether it is sunglasses and sunscreen, or warm clothes and extra food. Try to plan for everything you can.
Be honest: Is it really work?
Yes and no. Is it really work if you love to do it? It is an absolute blast to go out into the wilderness, prepared, but unsure of what is going to come next. Every turn in the corner, every glimpse above a ridgeline, they all reveal something unexpected, a new gift always awaits. However, the real work begins before leaving the comfort of your home; the planning, the training, and the late nights, it all takes a lot of effort and sacrifices.
On his photographic techniques:
I would say persistence and luck are the techniques that I use, but I don’t believe in luck. Luck is simply when preparation meets opportunity, so I try to always be prepared and informed of all the varying conditions that I could face. Although, it definitely helps when the golden hour lines up perfectly with a soft cloud cover, painting the entire landscape in vibrant tones.
On storytelling with photography:
Photography was the gateway into my artistic side, but that quickly led to writing short pieces with each photo I posted. At first I used the writing to simply convey statistics about the trip — mileage, elevation, location, etc. However, it slowly transformed into trying to paint the full picture of the experience. A picture is worth a thousand words, but I wanted to bring the viewer into the reality. I wanted to tell them about the cold chill of the wind that froze the droplets of sweat on my brow, the elation that overwhelmed the senses once the heavy pack fell from my shoulders, and the empowering surge of adrenaline that pulsed through my veins, carrying me to the summit.
Favorite regular destination:
The Cascade Range in Washington takes the cake, no questions asked. I was originally drawn to the area by the allure of the snow covered volcanoes and a plan to conquer them all, but along the way the lush, evergreen forests and golden alpine meadows slowly became my home away from home. After spending countless hours hiking and climbing amongst the beautiful peaks, I still get excited at the thought of returning to the trails lined with wild berries and the hidden waterfalls around each corner
Photography as an escape:
Originally I used photography purely to capture moments in time, allowing me to briefly travel back to those wild areas if only for a second. Now I have come to realize that I also use photography as an escape. Photography leads me into the wilderness where I refuel. The ruggedness and difficulty of these adventures paired with the solitude gives me an outlet to breakout from the routine of everyday life, returning refreshed and revitalized.
Correlation between effort and appreciation:
I’ve learned that the effort it took to capture a photograph doesn’t directly correlate to how much it is liked by the audience. A few of my most liked pictures were taken on easy, off day hikes that anyone can enjoy and love, while I personally favor more of the photos that were taken in extreme environments because I know how much work it took to capture them. It can be a little frustrating at times but my subconscious bias towards the difficult pictures has pushed me to continually improve my work ethic on those challenging trips.
On the daily work:
I always try to make room for photography and trip planning every day. Sometimes this means a couple of hours editing photos or reading about new techniques, other days my time will be spent reading recent trip reports and scouring weather patterns for the best locations. Before loading up my gear and heading out, I will normally have read a dozen trip reports, plotted out a hike and looked through countless pictures for inspiration.
The trip that instantly comes to mind as my favorite was my first time to Yellowstone, which happened to be in the dead of winter. It wasn’t the most extreme or demanding adventure, but the cold temperatures kept all but the most dedicated explorers out of the park, leaving me alone to experience the untouched wilderness as if I had been transported back in time. I spent days snowshoeing through the backcountry alongside endless herds of bison and elk while I chased the howls and footprints of wolves. They were continuously a bit out of reach for my lens so I always have another winter planned, and can’t wait to go back.
Photo gear nitty-gritty:
I’m one of those people that researched and researched for what seems like an eternity before purchasing gear that I am going to use, especially really expensive gear. I decided on the Sony mirrorless ecosystem back in its infancy in 2014. The Sony A600 checked all of the boxes for me, it was light, compact, priced in the middle, and had plenty of room to expand. Within the first few months I had filled my quiver with a 55 mm prime, 70-210 mm zoom, and 16-35 wide angle zoom. Around a year into my hobby, I realized it had turned into an obsession, so I made the jump, sold my gear, and bought the top of the line Sony a7R II. This required me to slowly replace all of my lenses with their full frame equivalents over the course of the following year.
For more on Ulrich’s work:
Visit inland360.com for more details on Ulrich’s photography gear, favorite trip, wilderness lessons and more.
View large-scale canvas wrapped prints of Ulrich’s photos at Covey’s Bike & Board; additional prints will be at Follett’s Mountain Sports, Northwest Media, Lewiston City Library and the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History
Learn more about Ulrich’s process at a free lecture and hands-on workshop 10:30 a.m.-noon Saturday at the Center for Arts & History, 415 Main St.
Find Ulrich on Instagram: @josh.ulrich
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Seventh annual Downtown Lewiston Artwalk
WHEN: 5-9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6
WHERE: Various businesses, downtown Lewiston
OF NOTE: Find a map in the Oct. 5 advertising insert in Inland360, Pages 11-18